It's no secret that I love cats. Head over to the Artwork page and you'll see that I spend a good portion of my time painting cats. I pretty much never miss an opportunity to talk about my own cats, like a super proud parent I can't help edging them into my conversations. My instagram account, though it is @WashokuDay, is ninety percent pictures of my three fur-babies. Emrys is a seventeen year old tabby siamese mix, Perine is a two year old calico, and Meredith (Mr. Merry) is an eleven month old ginger tabby. They're the light of my life, especially Emrys, who's been my constant companion since I was nine. Technically, Perine and Merry belong to my mother, but since we live in the same house, I just call them mine. Anyway, enough about my cats and how much I love them, which is a lot, if you didn't catch that. What I wanted to talk about today is cats in Japan.
Cats are currently the most popular pets in the world, out numbering "man's best friend" by around three to one (source: Cat Sense by John Bradshaw). But still, there hasn't been as much research into their history, genetics, and behaviors, as with dogs, since they are a lot harder to study. Only recently has there been some light shone on the mysterious creatures we share our homes with. The domestic cat evolved from wild cats (Felis silvestris), around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike dogs, there are not a seemingly endless array of breeds, and indeed, most cat breeds are pretty modern and a product of the cat show era. However, some cat breeds are older, coming from different parts of the world. Notably, the Asian cat breeds, like the Siamese, korat, and Japanese Bobtail.
It is believed that the Japanese bobtail came to Japan 1,000 years ago. These first cats were brought with a delegation from China as a gift to Emperor Ichijo. Their short tails were a byproduct of a genetic mutation, which was favored on the Asian continent. Soon cats were a beloved pet of the aristocracy and upper class. Cats in general had already found their way to Japan around 500 CE and were valued as protectors of Buddhist temples, keeping the rodent populations in check and thus preserving the sacred scrolls and books.
Cats with the short bobtails were favored over regular cats. Though these cats can be born with just about any coloring or pattern, the most popular was the mi-ke (mee-kay), or three colored cats. These were white cats with splotches of black and "red" (ginger), artistically placed about their person. This is also called a white calico. This is still the classic Japanese bobtail pattern today.
We know that the cats in China at the time were a more utilitarian animal, since they're depictions in artwork are mostly hunting based. In contrast, the Japanese art work of this period has a lot more in common with my Instagram page. Cats seem to be living it up in high style, leashed, and sleeping on comfy pillows, clearly adored by their human companions. But because of their relative rarity they were too expensive for the common folk of Japan to get to know and love. But all that was about to change.
As beloved as the cat was, in 1602 there was a wild shift in their fortunes. The government, worried about the vermin that were threatening the silkworms of the spinning trade, made an astounding decision. The cats of Japan were to be set free, kicked out of their sheltered and pampered existence. Owning, buying, or selling cats was suddenly illegal. This is not the only instance in history where the cat's social status has taken a bad turn. Most notably they had a very hard time in Europe during the witch craze. What makes this instance strange is that nobody was deciding that these cats were evil or vermin, but rather very useful and desirable pest control, and therefore they shouldn't be waisted as a snuggle-buddy. So cats were relocated to the streets and farm of Japan.
As anyone who has ever lived in an area with a feral cat population can tell you, cats are prolific breeders when left to their own devises. The misfortune of loosing their place of luxury actually contributed to their growing numbers. Natural selection brought the cats to a bigger and healthier standard. Now it was possible for more common people to get to know and appreciate the cat. Cats became popular characters of folktales and legends. The Bakaneko was a cat spirit that could transform into any form, and the nekomata was a demon cat with a split tail. (I'll write more on these folktales in another post.)
Cats were also believed to bring luck, the moneki-neko, or beckoning cat, became a symbol that is still popular today. This familiar white calico cat with upturned paw can be seen adorning the entrances of eateries and businesses, not only in Japan, but across Asia and worldwide. (Personally I have one on my art table in my studio). During the cultural renaissance of the Edo period, the now famous art form of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) emerged. Cats were a popular subject, much as they are now the apple of the internet meme-craze's eye.
For the life of me, I could not find any information on when the ban on owning cats expired. But, it did at some point, and in Japan today the cat in a beloved member of many hearts. There's even an entire island filled with a colony of cats, which outnumber the human residence by about six to one. Youtube and Instagram are bursting with videos from proud Japanese cat owners (my favorite is Maru the Scottish fold). Because many of the apartments in Japan will not allow pets, a new type of public space, which sounds like absolute paradise, has emerged. This is, the cat cafe, a place where feline lovers can come and sit with a bunch of happy cats and have a drink and maybe a light snack.
There are many types of cats in Japan now, though the bobtail is still an iconic favorite. I've never had a Japanese Bobtail, but they sound like very lovable creatures. Some of their breed specific traits are quite compelling, such as the fact that most of them are rather intelligent. Some of them are easily trained to preform tricks, or play fetch (actually Perine loves to play fetch). Their generally very human oriented and are excellent family pets. Many cats dislike living with other members of their species, but Bobtails generally like to have a companion, though they might accept a dog in a pinch. A more vocal breed, the Japanese Bobtail is capable of generating a range of sounds, in fact they're sometimes described as singers. Apparently it is also easier to train them to walk on a lead, rather than with most cats who will simply collapse, letting you drag them for a while before you give in and pick them up.
Though the Japanese Bobtail is obviously famous for, you know, being a bobtail, the mutation that causes this is actually a recessive gene. This means that if the parents of the kitten in question are both true bobtails, in all likeliness the kitten will have a short tail too. But if one of the parents has a long tail, it's far less likely to produce a bobtailed kitten. The mutation is not a disfigurement, like the Manx's short tail, but simply effects how many vertebrate the tail has. Generally a true bobtail must have no more than three inches of tail to be considered a "true bobtail". If you've ever known an animal with a cropped tail, or maybe one who lost it in an injury, you're probably picturing a little stump which feels weirdly boney, and is perhaps missing a little fur on the tip. The true bobtail is not like that, more like a rabbit's tail than anything. It truly is just a very short cat tail.
Another mutation that this breed is prone to is heterochromia, or having eyes of different colors. Only the Turkish Van is as susceptible to this phenomena, and it's more common in Bobtails with predominantly white coloring. The mutation causes one eye to be blue and one to be yellow, or silver and gold as it is called by breeders. This mutation is pretty neat, but when I look at a cat with it, I always start to feel a bit cross-eyed.
This has turned into a longer sized post than I originally intended, but I still have more to say on the subject of Japanese cats. Therefore, I will write a few follow ups, focusing on cats in folktales and myths, cats in pop culture, and perhaps a few others. So, I hope you enjoy cats. For those of you who are more doggie people, I might write about some of the Japanese dog breeds in the future.
Until next time, meeeoooow!